First Kennedy Assassination
Who conspired to schedule me
into another high-school gym class--
those smelly shirts and socks,
sweaty jock straps, damp towels,
those non-adjustable shower jets--
the Friday-morning news exploded
with static over our PA system?
"The President has been shot."
and I thought,
"the bullet must be in his leg.
He can't die!"
In Southern California
November Santa Ana winds all weekend
shredded palm fronds and bark
two years gone by
since smoke and flames
swallowed the opening of our school
Metal banisters at home
shocked the wrong choice in carpets,
as downstairs, we plugged in the TV
to see our President on the screen
tell us about missiles in Cuber,
and again, that same weather,
the same importance of a TV
switched on in time
to watch Jack Ruby kill Oswald.
(It might have been Gunsmoke, or a future
Star Trek, certainly some fiction,
a Warren's error of commission:
the bad guys died without confession.)
Sworn-in Johnson on a jet plane,
a black D.C. procession, the reruns from Dallas,
General De Gaulle towering
above a stately veiled widow,
and a young son--live--
as we were,
from Searchings for Modesto (1993)
for Betty La Duke
twist of the map
sets hemispheres on end,
veers them at the Southern Cross.
Canada lies down on her shatter Arctic shield;
Alaska casts his life-preserver Aleutians
at Kamchatka, who is also sinking on ice.
Sprawled out on solid ground, the U.S.A.
may still maintain a monolithic hope,
but sleeps again, supine in dreams--
his Florida swollen erect with fantasies.
All else eludes the sinews of his arms,
thinned down by sugar, coffee, rum
(only to mention the legal drugs).
Cuba begins to warp the other way;
her neighbors imitate the rhythm, dancing
with swinging hips.
Mexico gives birth out of her horn of plenty.
Workers, leaning on their hoes,
fly off in songs from Chiapas.
Their music barely touches the English language.
Every floating distance, loosened from Panama,
rounds a new cape, aiming for the Falklands
and space-station Antarctica,
where fleets of icebergs launch themselves,
people with penguins on the Humboldt Current.
So that's what he means to be an Amazon:
inverting tributaries, exploding Andes,
speeding past evolution on Galapagos islands.
Quena music will tame that spirit,
rising another octave to a different Machu Picchu.
The names of those countries
can no longer be deciphered.
Everything is upside-down!
In such air, they're broken clouds
but free from misconceptions,
still breathing when lungs falter,
clearings after storms. from Searchings For Modesto (1993),
first published in The Greenfield Review (Winter/Spring, 1987)
"Walking upright hazards any venture." Jane Glazer
the wrestings of my mind, when I saw
from a single-engine prop-plane
my parents' first house:
all shingled roof, squat stucco walls,
listing red brick chimney, and glass windows askew
winking back at me.
And so many others like it
between Bundy and sloping Sawtelle
off National Boulevard--
flat land near the Santa Monica airport
we had departed,
where celery fields once bent furrows for the fog.
That plane's engine still rumbles
loud enough to fly me
over thirty years--
tilting wings, biasing views,
of other climbs. The tallest building in Los Angeles
was City Hall--all umpteen stories--white stone
afraid of earthquakes.
But mountains slanted roads,
improved perspectives: windings up Mulholland
past fire trails--we never found the end--jackknives up Mt. Wilson.
Since then we've lost our early fears.
Switchbacks waive breathers.
Steel supports any imagined story.
I slept soundly the night
my parents worried about the chimney
threshed from an underground center
somewhere near Bakersfield.
Oblique tales stressed the importance,
and I lean now, breathing on plastic windows
over jet engines
or finding the landmarks: the Seattle Space Needle
with its revolving restaurant, the Eiffel in Paris, Seville's Giralda,
the Top of the Mark in San Francisco,
Cologne Cathedral Spiral, Machu Picchu,
my grade school's tiled tower
Mrs. Satrang let me scale alone in a June fog,
Hurricane Ridge (my Mt. Snowden), Half Dome for Nevada Falls,
and Teotihuacan--those pyramid inclines
we ran up, puffing to the top. from Searchings For Modesto (1993)
Fin de Siecle
When Rick Blue, six-foot-six, died young, none of us
carried his casket. Presbyterian, the family chose
a memorial in the Palisades
overlooking conference grounds freshly plowed
into our high school. After the predestined
eulogies, Monty, his father, a big man himself,
needed two men to lift him out of his pew.
He staggered. He stumbled in the narthex, howled
out a grief all of us held down, howled out
a grief only his own.
In Mary, Queen of Scotland, you'll turn him up
on some has-been channel, grieving--black, grey, white.
Our first TV. My mother pointed, "There's Monty Blue!"
touching John Knox on the screen. He was holding
a thick book in one hand, raising high the other,
and cursing down (between used-car commercials)
Popery and the English Church.
A true sermon splashes me back in the pool.
From ten to fourteen, I'm slow of growth.
Rick touches bottom in places I dive head first in.
He lifts me onto a raft, and, long-armed,
jerks me toward him, pushes me out--
full extension: arms, rope--jerks me in again.
It beats any ride at POP.
Pacific Ocean Park.
Who ever cared for Neptune's Kingdom?
The Hall of Mirrors? Steve Zweiback explained one.
"Centrifugal force: when the walls spin fast enough,
they drop the floor, and you hang in air there,
whirled to the wall." Enough
to make anyone trumpet. Enough
to make someone lose a lunch. But locked
in slow plastic bubbles passing clear over ocean--
that really scared me:
"What if the machinery breaks down? We'd suffocate.
We'd drown. Let's choose the roller coaster instead."
While his wife, Mary, nursed for my father,
Rick engineered at USC: drafting board, T-square,
mechanical pencil. Those regimens channeled
hours--round games otherwise passing
continuous in my mind:
Michigan rummy or pinochle by evening. For a time,
He, Mary, and I melded.
But all people fall out.
Rick developed cancer--just like his mother.
He showed me her portrait once--
fin de siecle I say now,
maybe even Whistler, black and white tones.
By then we hardly ever saw him. Writing,
I recognize: we're growing fin de siecle;
Rick couldn't reach it. He died in '61, or was it '62?
One last scene. Christmas. A week before he died.
Annie Hruby, also dead now, drove us. Mary Blue,
her children, inside their wreathed door. (Ask Martha,
Annie's sister, about that house's anger.)
We entered Rick's room, saw feet, long legs,
swollen beyond white sheets. His face,
nearly skull, smiled,
recognized our repulsion. His arm
held toward us. Each of us touched it. No words.
We finally dropped from his grasp.
That part's impossible to right. from Searchings for Modesto (1993)